The Power of Nature – Typhoon Haiyan


I’m sitting in the UN facility in Ormoc which is now online after days of clearing typhoon damage in order to reinstate the building as operational. It is 3 weeks to the day that Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as ‘Yolanda’) hit the shores of the Philippines; what it left in its wake was a country, a series of islands decimated with over 14 million affected, including 5 million children, deaths into the thousands, 4 million people left homeless and millions desperate for food, safe drinking water, shelter and sanitation.

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Images on left: Crowds waiting to board military planes to escape the post-typhoon devastation, international aid cargo delivery – Images on right: the UN Compound in Guiuan

I traveled to Ormoc with disaster relief charity Byond to document their efforts and the daily desperation of those who have been directly affected by one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded. Prior to leaving the UK, Byond volunteers and disaster consultants identified that they should focus on communities which large aid agencies had not yet reached. At Linao School in Ormoc, Byond as a shelter specialist organisation, noted that providing tents and temporary shelters to the swathes of people now homeless, was not the best use of time or volunteers.

The community of Ormoc were desperate for shelter en masse. Byond began by re-roofing buildings which had managed to maintain their structural integrity; predominantly classrooms in an attempt to give 3-fold support to the community. Firstly, using the classrooms as shelter for families whose homes had been destroyed, secondly getting schools back up and running so that children could return to their education and thirdly providing spaces for soup kitchens, the storage of aid supplies and a place from which distribution of aid could be carried out. The Byond team bring all kinds of skills to the table enabling them (and me too in fact as every pair of hands can be put to good use here) to re-roof, re-plumb, re-build, form international connections within the community, work with other NGO’s and governmental groups, document our work through photography, filming, the written word and assessing what else we can do to help those who have suffered from the typhoon and who continue to suffer.

Three days ago, John Henderson, Lasse Peterson and I (all disaster relief volunteers) traveled by 4×4 from the city or Ormoc to Taklaban to gauge the national devastation for ourselves, leaving our four fellow Byond relief workers at Linao School to continue work sheltering thousands of people. From Tacloban we traveled to Guiuan a six-hour drive away. We knew that the typhoon had not only been relentless in where it hit affecting almost all communities, but alarmingly we’d heard that there were small fishing villages and rural areas which hadn’t yet received aid and we were eager to head to those regions in particular to ask what kind of assistance they needed. It’s important to listen to individuals affected, allow them to indicate what they need the most. One of the things that I noticed was that aid agencies, in their eagerness to help offer a ‘one size fits all’ kind of relief package – not the most useful of applications and alienates those we’ve come to assist.

Typhoon Haiyan winds were recorded reaching 200 mph and although I could accept this from a numerical standpoint, what I couldn’t fathom was the effect that a 200mph wind has on immobile objects, enormous reinforced steel and iron clad buildings, lamp-posts with practically zero surface area which has been crumpled in half, cars upturned and thrown against buildings. The majority of people wouldn’t have stood a chance. Thousands of unfortunate souls didn’t survive, corpses zipped into Red Cross body bags can still be seen in the street – body bags are being handed out to neighbourhoods and told that if they find a body, to place it into the bag and leave on the side of the road for collection.

Sounds brutal doesn’t it? That’s because it is. The typhoon was unapologetic and came in the dead of night, not only did this monstrosity of nature occur, but it happened in darkness. Without being able to see your way to safety, devoid of any auditory assistance due to the sound of the typhoon’s destruction all around and wind velocity, I cannot even begin to comprehend how terrifying it must have been to be here, for those few hours, experiencing the strongest storm ever to have made landfall.

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‘Ground zero’ in Tacloban where the typhoon created a tsunami and Byond worker John Henderson in awe of a ship having been carried miles inland by the cyclone

In Tacloban we headed to ‘ground zero’ the shoreline where Lasse who has 12 years of first call disaster relief experience commented that typhoon had created a tsunami effect, an enormous body of water hitting the land, crushing everything in its path and then mixing a deadly concoction of mud, concrete, cars, personal effects and people into one speeding wall heading inland. The site is full of personal mementos giving survivors a window into the lives which have now been taken. It’s difficult to fully appreciate the enormity of what’s been lost here, not only the lives, but also their aspirations and hopes.

It was sunny and hot walking around but with all of the trees and buildings gone, there are no birds, no natural noises whatever, only the gentle lapping of the sea onto the heavily item laden shore. It’s eerie and will be for some time. It’s easy to linger in a place like this and wonder if there’s anything that our global community could have done to better prepare these people; this is a question for later however as now is the time for all hands on deck and do what we can for the survivors who still aren’t out of danger.

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Disaster Relief Responder standing next to the call for help sign in Kaluwayan, Philippines

We drove from Tacloban towards Guiuan and passing through a small fishing village names Kaluwayan and noticed a large sign saying “HELP PLS! WE NEED SHELTER” we screeched on the brakes questioning why a village with a main road passing through it still, over 2 weeks after the event, still needed shelter. Upon closer inspection there were no tents, no tarps, nothing visible which would normally suggest that relief had been given. A woman around the age of 38 who introduced herself as Lyn, came out of a small hut to greet us and told us her experience of the typhoon. Stopping in a 4×4 in areas like this causes a commotion amongst the locals so before we know it we were being introduced to everyone and invited to meet relatives and be shown the havoc that the typhoon had caused.

One young girl, named Jennifer (16yrs) approached me and told me how frightened she had been, how she had climbed into the hills with as many people as were able to climb to escape the oncoming cyclone. Jennifer lives in what remains of her house, a small wooden structure about 10 x 10 foot, the temporary roof now made from what looks like an one piece of blue tarp which has seen better days. There are 3 families living here with residents of all ages, babies, toddlers, small children right up to grandparents in their 80’s. They sleep in shifts as there isn’t enough room inside the dwelling to all sleep at once. These people need help and need it fast. Jennifer is a typical 16 year old in some ways, she has a ‘crush’ on a local boy and several times mentioned that she doesn’t know what she wants to do for her 17th birthday which takes place soon in mid-December but when she talks about the typhoon, the destruction of her community and how worries about their lives getting back to normal and trying to rebuild, she ages and speaks like someone who has experienced more than she should ever have had to during her short lifetime thus far.

Here’s a short film about our time in Kaluwayan:

Saying goodbye to Jennifer, Lyn and the wider community, we continued our trip to Guiuan brainstorming ways in which we could return to help the village of Kaluwayan on our way back to Ormoc in 2 days time.

Upon arrival in Guiuan we headed towards a household which we’d been told by another relief worker days earlier he would be staying and we could try our luck to see if they had space for an additional 3 people, but to no avail. We heated some MRE’s on top of the running car engine and ate hurriedly whilst deciding what to do next. We headed to the heavily guarded UN Compound set on the site of a gym which had been destroyed during the typhoon. We were offered beds, showers, food and access to their comms equipment, using it as a base camp for the duration of our stay. It seemed to me that this UN Compound was a hybrid of a space station and a small military base full of men, a couple of women from all over the world focused on the Philippines relief effort. Quite something to behold and be a part of. The people we’d met at Kaluwayan were on our minds and we hatched a plan to get hold of some tents, tarp and medical equipment the next day. How we achieved this, isn’t particularly important as we had to disappear under the radar between 7 and 9am, but post natural disaster you do what you need to in order to get the job done. Red tape is an annoyance.

We headed to the Guiyan airbase to get a clearer idea of what kind of aid was getting through Customs and take a look at the logistics on the ground of how trasnfer of aid cargo worked. With locals lining up to be evacuated, the multipurpose military protecting the relief deliveries, overseeing the evacuees onto the planes, administering of diesel to necessary relief work vehicles and military presence needed to deter looting and marshall law from ensuing.

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During this trip we also took the opportunity to visit elementary schools along our route to assess whether we could include any of them in our schools project, the Byond vision being to get as many children back to school as quickly as possible. Each and every school we saw during our 400km round trip, was decimated and we knew we’d have our work cut out on the schools we’d choose for our Raise the Roof school appeal in early 2014.

So 800km, 2 burst tyres, sleeping under armed guard in a UN Compound and managing to mistake a 10L jerry can of water for Diesel filling the 4×4 fuel tank up with it in the dark on our way back last night, having to improvise a siphon and siphoning it out during a rain storm, we’re back in Ormoc and looking forward to getting back to Limao School tomorrow to see what the other half of our team have accomplished whilst we were away. We are also taking another school under our wing, Naungan School continuing our work with locals on the school buildings, a daycare centre and a health centre. Once we have completed our work during this deployment we shall donate all of our equipment and tools to the Ormoc Rescue Service. We also leave having taught local men new building skills and hope that they will be able to earn a living from this in the future.

As part of our Raise the Roof campaign deployment teams are scheduled to head out to the Philippines to continue repairing schools this month (January 2014). All team members are volunteers and with donations, public support, equipment and kit sponsors we can continue to make a difference in the lives of Filipino survivors.

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